How to Make this Better – Engage Neighborhood Groups

The comment period is closed for the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Pretty much anyone involved has to admit that it was an unmitigated disaster. Thousands of official comments in opposition the plan. Public meetings with people yelling and screaming and swearing and crying. City officials losing their temper at the public. Council Members literally running from people who want to talk to them about the Plan.

Did it have to be this way? It is important to go back to the beginning, to when the Comp Plan was being formulated. From the very beginning, it was clear that it was not a plan coming from the community but a plan to be imposed on the community. There were some meetings with some groups but these groups were narrow and targeted to the interests of the planners, not about engaging the whole community in the development of the plan. Residents were not to be creators of the Plan but simply to give feedback once it was done. The Civic Engagement Plan for the 2040 Comp Plan lists residents as number six on the list of people to engage. (Chapter 2, May 29, 2016 version).

The methods that the Civic Engagement Plan said it would use to engage citizens are:
• Meeting in a box.
• Street and cultural festivals
• Creative tools (no clue what this is)
• Community dialogs with cultural leaders (Who are cultural leaders?)
• Key directions meeting (again, no clue what this means…)
• Digital workshops (as if everyone is on their computers all the time and know how to engage in a digital workshop…)

What is missing here? We have a whole robust infrastructure for public engagement through our neighborhood groups. They were totally missing from creating the plan.

In fact, instead of using the neighborhood organizations to develop the Plan, a version of the Community Engagement Plan discussed abolishing neighborhood organizations. Now the neighborhood groups got wind of this and a couple dozen sent a letter to the City opposing this action. The language abolishing neighborhood groups was eventually dropped and a goal about citizen input was written. But if you read the language, you find that it is a thinly veiled attack on neighborhood groups.

This disenfranchisement of neighborhood groups in the Comp Plan planning process is important because CPED has stopped requiring neighborhood groups review and advise (with a 45-day noticing requirement) on new development proposals. This is now gone from the City’s contracts with neighborhood groups. The voices of neighborhood groups have been ignored in the Comp Plan process and then removed when actual projects are brought forward. It is hard to imagine a bigger gift to developers. And this all follows a trend of diluting neighborhood empowerment. Funding has dwindled, neighborhood organizations have been ignored, and the voice of the average citizen reduced.

If you look at the Plan itself, you see that it was written to reduce meaningful citizen input. A comprehensive plan exists to plan for capacity in key systems. Sewers. Water. Streets and roads. Transit. Parks. Affordable housing. It does not exist for the City to write aspirational goals which have no force of law. Yet this document is chock full of fluff goals and statements designed to get people to buy into the document overall while hiding the real legally binding actions of the Comp Plan.

It is also clear that how the City presented the Plan was designed to obscure its intent. The website is hard to understand. You have to wade through a bunch of happy statements before you can get to the actual goals and action items. Often the happy statements and the actual goals and action items conflict with each other, making it impossible to understand what is being approved. What is aspirational and what will carry force of law is impossible to know because nothing designates one from the other. And it all presumes that citizens are all tech-savvy enough to engage on a complex website, an assumption that is ageist and racist and classist. The PDF version, where you can actually see what is going to be adopted by the City Council, wasn’t released until the last month of public comment.

The City also liberally used race to justify its policies throughout the document. This was done to set up a straw man – either you follow our policies or you are a racist. It is hard to imagine a better way to smother public debate. And we have seen this played out in public discussion as Neighbors for More Neighbors calls out anyone who opposes their beliefs as racist.

The public meetings that were held with the community were not discussions but sales jobs. Dialogue is when two people exchange views and this did not happen at the meetings I attended. I was literally told not to express an opinion at a meeting but to simply ask questions as staff were there to only answer questions and not to engage in dialogue with the community. Someone from the League of Women Voters noted that the meetings were not being recorded nor were there notes being taken. In fact, for all the one-way meetings, there was little actual dialogue on what this plan is or why it should be changed.

I have been on the front lines of getting people engaged on the plan. Every day I have heard from people talking about how they didn’t know about this proposal to radically change their neighborhoods. The more we let people know, the more people are angry. A simple, low tech solution of sending everyone a post card letting them know what was coming would have helped immensely. A slightly more sophisticated postcard explaining that their home was going to be up-zoned and what zone they were in in the new plan and the picture showing them what the City wanted their neighborhood to look like in 20 years would have gone even further. But the City Council voted against making that expenditure. Instead it spent money on a confusing website.

Maybe the first problem, the very first problem, was the approach. The City chose to have a few planners sit down and write their vision of the City. Not our vision of the City but theirs. Now some of them have left the City and the citizens are scrambling each individually to give feedback on this mess. Imagine instead if the City set broad goals of what they wanted to achieve and then asked the neighborhood groups to develop strategies to meet those goals. Imagine if they asked the neighborhoods what strategies could be put in place so they could grow 10% over the next 20 years. Maybe Corcoran would say up-zone our whole neighborhood, maybe even more than fourplexes. Maybe Cooper would say build along our high frequency transit routes. Maybe North would say zone more employment. I don’t know. But I know that our collective wisdom is greater than a couple of planners from City Hall. And I know Uptown does not needs the same policies as North. Once done, the City could have gathered all those visions into one document, a document that would have truly been a vision for our collective future but also honoring our diversity. Jim Graham said that planners should be “Dream Weavers” and not dreamers themselves and this is what we could have had. Should have had.

We could still do this. We could tell the Met Council that we are scrapping the whole first draft. The end of the year is an artificial deadline anyway. We could start over.

Now I know this is not going to happen. We hear that the City is about to hire an out-of-state boutique advertising firm to sell the existing Plan to the residents.

Because they couldn’t sell it themselves.

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